As innocuous as the word sounds, networking is a powerful force in ensuring success in an individual’s personal and professional life and has been practiced in some form or other throughout the ages. In fact the value placed on it was so great that it even extended to marriage alliances between kingdoms!
The rules of courtesy and the social structure have always played a large part in natural networking. Families and societies were closely knit and group interaction was common. People were dependent on one another, interacted closely and learned to behave and communicate in different ways to construct and negotiate a social reality.
With the growing popularity of internet usage, networking seems to have taken a backseat with the generation of today gravitating more into an insular world. With faster-than-light methods of communicating, face-to-face communication has lost its flavour. Nevertheless, networking is a very important component in human relations and should be placed on par with educational and professional development as without it, one could never break the cocoon. The route to the top depends largely on successful networking in the right circles with the right people.
Building blocks of a successful professional
Sometimes we may wonder, do networking talents come naturally? We would all wish it did and maybe it did for those who preceded us in the generations past where no rule book existed. Many individuals prefer face-to-face networking because of the potential for higher quality relationships. People prefer to actually know and meet those they intend doing business with.
Forming a good relationship makes business collaborations easier through trust, whilst at the same time it promotes one’s personal skills to a higher level free of cost. With e-commerce breaking barriers networking has become a matter of tactics, planning, execution, follow up, follow up and more follow up.
Indeed the most successful networkers are those who build and relentlessly reinforce their presence in subtle ways, getting closer without appearing to do so, forming trust and bonding that is the solid base for success both on a personal and professional platform.
Meeting people from large and small businesses, FMCG sectors, service and the public sectors has reinforced my view that without proper networking, all other credentials, whether educational or professional lack the cutting edge needed to enable the professional to reach his full potential.
Networking is therefore a critical factor in professional success that should never be underestimated. Skilful self branding, a topic to be dealt with in detail at a later stage and networking in the right circles are the building blocks of a successful professional.
Online business networking
The professional today has an edge over the past with online business networking. Businesses are increasingly using social networks as a means of growing their circle of business contacts and promoting themselves online.
Online networks allow professionals to build a circle of business partners. By connecting these business partners the networking tools allow individuals to search for certain people within their network. Using these tools, introductions to business partners come with a click of a button.
E-commerce platforms and business partnering networks have made small and medium sized companies accessible to each other globally. Nevertheless, can this impersonal mode of networking take the place of the age old personal encounter? Has individual networking lost its importance and become a pleasant indulgence whenever time permits, in today’s modern and fast paced business environment? I believe not. Having been in the business of executive search for over three decades and having had the privilege of meeting a broad spectrum of businessmen and executives at all levels, I believe that networking is a practice that an individual needs to refine continuously if one were to reach a place of any importance as an individual and as a professional. Knowing people, the right people in the right places is crucial to climbing the corporate ladder. The “pleasant pastime” of meeting and socialising is part of a job that has a motive and a plan behind it!
Following a few rules consistently
I believe that effective business networking entails following a few rules consistently. For example, there is no necessity to relentlessly pursue the business sector only. Those outside of the business community can also be very helpful networking contacts.
Thus, when developing networking plans, it is important to think beyond the people you would typically see at business gatherings as some of the most important connections may not necessarily be businessmen and consequently you need to be creative in reaching them, either through face-to-face encounters, organised events, business websites or other means. Professionals have at various times had reason to attend conferences, training courses, exhibitions, trade chambers, breakfast meetings, lectures, hospitality events, foreign trade visits, product launches, sports clubs and other clubs business networking websites and these are prime ground for networking opportunities, unobtrusive self branding, image building and recognition.
Successful business networking relates to behaviours that are learned and practiced. Networking is actually interpersonal communication skills of which conversations are the base. Conversations are social interactions that involve rules of etiquette and social convention.
Nevertheless, conversations are just a part of the larger component and professionals at each end of the scale would need to address these components at all stages of their lives, refining and redefining their tactics to maintain the impetus.
All-important first impression
To project that all-important first impression, networkers need to first know themselves and form a basic self presentation pitch. Presenting one’s self in a professional manner aimed at imparting the most relevant information in a very short time is important in projecting a good image in the first few seconds, followed with eye contact and a firm handshake.
A good networker would react to body language to gauge interest and reaction and would try to avoid letting the discussion tail off into meaningless small talk. A good networker would also be careful to avoid the temptation to foist a business card onto the other person unless an appropriate moment presents itself. Your personal presentation may be merely a matter of redefining or placing different emphasis on what you already are and already do to make it different and appealing to others. Whilst aiming high and at the same time maintaining a realistic approach when expressing oneself, your aims should also suggest what you are seeking from business networking, otherwise there would be no reason for you to be networking at all, thus the need for skilful self branding.
Business networking is not simply finding contacts in one-to-one meetings and connections; it is an image building, self branding exercise through which you would gradually build a strong network helpful for your aims.
Business networkers gravitate naturally to other networkers who project a positive image, those who see possibilities in every situation and who strive for change and improvement. These attitudes make things happen. When you meet likeminded networkers with these attitudes, your network will grow because you would be recognised as a positive personality who makes things happen.
Not a one-off exercise
As a person with in depth experience in meeting and exchanges with a wide segment of professionals, I believe knowing what you want is the first step, and managing it thereafter the second. Business networking is a project that needs managing, with targets, measurable and a monitoring of results.
A plan is vital because business networking is a time-consuming activity although most people take as part of the day’s run. Obviously you would need to know as many people as possible who could help you develop your business and yourself. Networking is not a one-off exercise. I have found that many people, even those holding positions of high responsibility, do not attach due relevance to following up on commitments and promises. Networking produces good results only when it is followed through as following up with contacts reinforces the relationship.
Follow up is a matter of commitment. Indeed networkers who meet people and never follow up are wasting their time. If a contact or referral is not relevant, it is best to make that clear. On the other hand if it has relevance, it would need pursuing in a positive and enthusiastic manner.
As with all activity, networking involves focused and consistent effort. The occasional light involvement would have little impact on networking efforts. A factor detrimental to good networking is criticism, emotionalism and personalisation which would block the path of good networking. Whilst business networking can be a very enjoyable activity, it combines with social networking to form a complete circle.
Trust and integrity
Whilst trust and integrity are valued perquisites at all times, in networking these attributes hold a special place since good networking involves building trust and integrity. The ability to realise a wrong that might undermine your integrity and a willingness to quickly admit and apologise are invisible but powerful traits.
Integrity is vital for trust to develop and is the base of a strong business network. Good networking also require you to be genuinely interested in others; to listen properly, and to reflect back meaningfully and helpfully.
Trust and integrity, reliability and dependability are highly valued qualities in relationships, especially relationships involving referrals and recommendations and translate simply to delivering on your statements. Indeed lack of trust would certainly prevent successful business networking as high level connections can never be formed until high level trust is established. A generation ago, the rules of hospitality were deeply embedded in society and giving and taking was a norm. Most people underestimate the power of giving as a part of good networking, although this was an integral part of traditional hospitality in days gone by.
An important point in good networking is giving – and giving is reciprocated by receiving. Being helpful without an eye on the return fertilises the soil of good relationships. As humans are highly complex beings, often it is not possible to see exactly how and why goodwill works for you, nevertheless there is definitely a positive impact through giving and receiving which translates to strong business and social relationships.
Building visibility, trust and reputation
Whilst there may be a huge database of networking groups available through the intranet, a well functioning person-to-person business network cannot be challenged when it comes to referrals and opportunities.
Should you wonder at any time whether your networking efforts are producing the desired opportunities and referrals, assess the possible cause before moving on to different groups or methods.
Profitable networking does not mean going aimlessly after every networking opportunity which comes your way; instead try to find networks which already function well or have the potential to do so; and focus on the sort of groups and contacts that align with your aims and capabilities – ideally remembering that networking is a two way process in which you would be expected to contribute.
Building trust and respect by giving trust and respect to your chosen contacts within the target group would be the first step in widening the circle and gaining a reputation. Indeed, regular interaction in the right circles leads to a world of opportunities where you would find easy recognition and many paths to profitable directions.
Hand in hand with credentials, the business world has always placed heavy emphasis on visibility, trust and reputation which are the threads that run in the operations of the smallest boutique to large international business houses. Building visibility, trust and reputation is a form of self branding that gives entry to the right circles where one would be recognised in society, command recognition and respect. In seeking opportunities, I advice being continuously open to unplanned networking opportunities which can arise at any time outside the business circuit. It is important to take a little initiative, start conversations and adopt a friendly and open approach.
Sustained focused effort translates to a regular active and helpful presence in the group. Build relationships first, your reputation next, and referrals and introductions will follow. The principle of networking is finding and building helpful relationships and connections with other people for mutual benefit using the principle of reciprocity.To an extent, it is a notion that it is not what you know, but who you know that takes you to the next plane in the business circuit.
(The writer is a Head Hunting Guru and MD/Principal Consultant of Executive Search Ltd/Appointments of International Management Specialists – AIMS.)